Conversation vs Consequence
Greg Burnham, MS, LMFT Clinical Director and Primary Therapist at outBack Therapeutic Expeditions
Brenda Zane is a Sky’s the Limit Fund board member, Founder of Hopestream Community, and podcast host of Hopestream
About the episode:
Much of what we hear about parenting has to do with consequences and boundaries. So our go to as parents when our children make choices we don’t agree with is to apply consequences. The opposite of that is that we avoid and don’t do anything. Greg invites us to think about conversations by analyzing our emotions and belief systems regarding consequences.
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Dr. Ross Greene’s work and The Anatomy of Peace
Hello, welcome to another series of our Sky’s the Limit Fund’s Speaker Series. We are excited to have you back today for another great conversation. Coming up, I’m Brenda Zane, I am the lucky board member of Sky’s the Limit Fund who gets to have these conversations, talk with amazing people who are involved with wilderness therapy in various forms. So we’re really glad to have you here today. If you don’t know about Sky’s the Limit Fund, we are an organization, a nonprofit that helps families afford wilderness therapy, it is an incredibly successful treatment model. But it is also very expensive. And so we work with great donors and organizations who help us help families who are in crisis. So we’re really glad that you’re here today. And we’re glad to provide some information for families about wilderness therapy. If you are questioning this form of therapy, you probably are a little nervous, you’re probably wondering what goes on out there. And so we work hard to bring you all of that information so that you can make really good decisions and feel good about the choices that you’re making. And today, I’m really excited to get to have a conversation with Greg Burnham. He is with Outback Therapeutic Expeditions. He’s a therapist there and the clinical director, he has been working in the field of with adolescents and their families in a therapeutic way for over 23 years. So I’m guessing he’s got a lot of great insights for us. And we’re going to have a conversation kind of about conversations, which is something that is definitely hard to do if you are a family in crisis. So I am excited to welcome Greg to our speaker series and look forward to chatting with you. Welcome.
Thank you. Good. Good to be here.
Yeah, so I was excited to see your topic because it was so true. I was reading how you were talking about as families and as parents we can to when things go wrong, we tend to go to consequences. And we’ve got rules and good boundaries, and we just kind of like want to lock things down. And I’m excited to talk today about how maybe we can think about having conversations. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about you and what you do, and then we’ll get into all that good stuff.
Yeah, I, I guess what about me, so I mean, I, personally, I have four kids, my own right married, trying to survive life, I tell families that it is 1000 times easier to be a therapist than it is to be a parent. So zero judgment on my part. These are not these are challenging things to accomplish. And so anything you hear today is not is not under the guise of you’re supposed to have this figured out. Or you’re supposed to be able to do this magically, if you hear it one time, typically hear at one time, it sparks your interests. And then you go to, you know, other sources, talk to other people to then deepen the process. So I’m all about process and taking the time to learn things and you know, figuring things out in our own humanity, right. We’re we struggle as people to know how to navigate difficult situations. So we rely on what comes easy to us or what we’ve learned at some point along our lives. And it’s exciting to come together and try and think about that a little bit differently. right ways. We, so I love doing that kind of stuff. I love breaking things down analyzing them a very analytical thinker. And I love to I’m an active person in general just love to be out and be active. And that’s kind of me, I guess, I’m not sure.
That’s great. I think you’re so right. When you say that? Well, being a parent is hard. I’m not a therapist. So I don’t know that side of it. But being a parent certainly is difficult, especially if you have a child who is you know, starting to walk away from what we consider the normal path, which, you know, we could talk for days about that. But you know, when you have a child who is starting to veer off and experiment with substances, or is having mental health challenges, it can be really paralyzing as a parent, as you know. And so I just think it’s, it’s great to talk to somebody like you who has literally 1000s of interactions with families, because when it’s you you only have your experience as a parent unless you maybe happen to be a therapist yourself, which many of us are not so we only have our own isolated experience. So talking with somebody like you and having this conversation, where you have literally talked to 1000s of Families and been in those really difficult conversations will be super helpful. So why don’t you share a little bit about this idea of conversations? I’m really intrigued by that.
Yeah. So I, obviously I don’t come by these ideas on my own right, they come from other people, they’re a collection of ideas, through all the reading and learning that I’ve done in the last, you know, 20 plus years of doing this and having to really challenge myself along the way, right, you come into this field thinking that, you know, the NSA field, I mean, just the therapy, right? Thinking that, you know, whatever you learned in graduate school, was going to be sufficient, if you realize, learned really quickly that that works in a very perfect scenario, that there are so many vast complexities in the human experience that if you try and fit everybody into one box, you’re kind of stuck in a work, right. And one of the big things that we learn about right as parents, one of the how also kind of the baggage that we’ve carried with us for many, many decades, right, is this idea of consequences, that consequences are a primary tool for teaching. That, you know, you touch the hot stove, you learn the lesson not to touch the hot stove, right? And because that’s so ingrained, and just our culture, our society that consequences are a primary form of teaching. When things get challenging, that’s what we go to, often, right? Or we bury our head in the sand, and we just don’t want to deal with it at all right? That’s
it? Yes, that’s definitely another
basic, those are our two options, we hit okay, we got a consequence, you know, you know, ground the child, we’re gonna take this away, or we’re gonna stop that, you know, we’re gonna do some sort of consequence. And by doing that, what we don’t realize is that we don’t actually know what the problem is. Right? So we, the problem, we think is, is the behavior right? There was the behavior that happened. And that’s the problem. So I’m going to consequence that problem in order to motivate the child to do something different. That’s the basic framework, right? And to teach them through a consequence. Well, the problem is, if I don’t actually know what the problem is, might I be making the situation even worse, if not just not helping? Right? And how do I learn the skill of conversation? I’m using for conversation very broadly. Right? Okay. It’s the ability to engage another human in learning, and understanding and exploring and sharing and validating, right, it’s, but it’s it there’s a verbal process, as I’m calling it a conversation, right? There’s a verbal energy interchange between people, right, the conversation that helps us drill down until we figure out what the actual problem is. Now, but I don’t want to confuse here is we’re not trying to drill down diagnostically. People get trapped in that one as well, right? Like, oh, what’s the problem? Like, tell me what the problem is? They get anxious about it. And they’re trying to ask all these 1000 questions, that kid says, Get me out of here. Right? You’re with us. So it’s a process, right? A verbal interchange. And so a lot of it’s nonverbal as well, right. But it’s a communication process, conversation process, between people to get to the drill down to what’s actually the problem. What are we dealing with here? Right. So that if we happen to apply consequences that may or may not be, you know, I find that oftentimes when you forget what the actual problem is, you find other consequences wouldn’t be helpful anyway. But if you still find one, and then sure, apply the consequence, but make sure the consequence fits the thing you drill down to identify. Right, right, if you’re going to do a consequence. Now we shy away from this because as I’m talking people are probably going yeah, that’s overwhelmed. Like how do you do that? Greg? No wonder we go to consequences because that seems so complex. Yeah. I have no idea how to do that. Right, right. Now we’re gonna go over some ideas that I had get some thoughts but but you know, you can refer to people like Ross Greene, who wrote raising human beings. He’s got some great videos. Crucial Conversations, right? That’s another book out and there’s a lot of books out there about how to have conversations and not one of them has the answer though. NASA got to be careful. And once again, because the answer is still looking for the right answer, the easy answer, and not recognizing that it is a process that involves many layers to it, right, of being able to do this. Yeah, we also know some of our kids, some of our friends, whatever, our it’s easy to have the conversation with. Right? They share really easily. They’re Sarah fairly self aware, there’s no defensive, this has no history. And so they get to the problem, that problem, right? Oh, easier than other individuals. And recognizing that, what we’re talking about the skill level I need is directly correlated with the individual’s lack of skill. So if the individual I’m interacting with right has high level skill, I don’t necessarily have to have as high level skill, we’re going to kind of muddle through that. We all that’s the good news is that we all have had experiences of engaging in conversation, to drill them what the actual problem is, right? equally matched skill level, we’re having this conversation, we kind of muddled through it, figure it out. And we we identify, we identify core processes, and then we start to work on those together, right. Now, the other thing I want to be clear of is that we’re not suggesting they’re trying to drill it down. So you can find some sort of fix. Right? That’s a huge trap as well.
But we always want to fix,
we love the fix. It feels good to us. And that’s why we do consequences. Easy. We do fix because it’s like, let me just, you know, so my child comes to me and says I’m feeling extremely anxious. Have you tried this? Right? Have you tried that? Right? Have you done this? Right? So we do the same thing? But that’s not a conversation as well. Right? So I’d say with that fits in the convert that it’s in the consequence realm. Right? So consequences fixing, that’s all in one kind of box. And this idea of conversation, drilling, understanding, empathizing, etc, isn’t another box of skills. Yeah. Now, once again, if you don’t know how to consequence at all, and you’re just to bury your head in the sand individual, then you probably need to learn some skills about that that would be appropriate. And if you, you know, also, if you, you know, the fixing type and you want to learn skills to not fix, what do you have in place of that? Well, some sort of category over here, that’s the the conversation category, the drilling category, the understanding category. And this category, obviously, we’re going to have things like well, self regulation, as a parent, I have to have or friend, this isn’t just, we’re talking about his parenting, right, but it really applies to every right. Right, that I have to have some sort of regulation skill, right? I have to be able to manage those emotions, in order to be thinking about thinking more clearly, right? reacting in ways that are helpful emotionally with the nonverbals that I’m sending that are saying, Oh, no, big problem. Scary, right? Right. Why did you shut down all I said was, you know, I’m not yelling? Well, but your emotions are high, you overwhelming me, I’m scared. So I’m withdrawing from this kind of situation. So you got to be able to regulate emotions, as part of that skill. validation, right? Validation is an art form, right, you got to know how to validate, which is just basically, I hear you truly hear you. I feel what you’re saying, I understand what you’re saying. You know, learning, those kinds of strategies are important. There’s a lot of ways to learn those kinds of strategies. And if I can regulate, validate, understand and create a safe space now, I can get into this realm of of conversation, right? I’ve got a lot of possibilities, to have a conversation to learn how to drill, which is a raw screen term, right how to get down in. Now, we also misinterpret oftentimes a drilling means it’s going to be some deep emotional issue we’re looking for right? At juicy trauma rides. And sometimes drilling is as simple as the kids struggling at school, let’s say, not getting their homework done, right. And we’re looking for things like, well, insecurities and fear of failure, like that’s kind of what we’re looking for. Which it might just be as simple as, oh, when the teacher stands up, I can’t see the teacher. Right? Because of where I’m positioned in class or whatever. And so I’m missing some information, or this kid is talking to me, and so I can’t hear yeah, sometimes drilling down is really simple. There are very simple and actually those things can be fixed. You know, there are some times that problems especially for younger children, right when you’re talking 1213 Right? There’s a lot of little things that can be fixed, like, Oh, I didn’t know that right. And they didn’t even think about it. So like they were hiding it. Right? Big just because we didn’t have a conversation, I will I will do as consequences of you for not getting your homework done. When really the issue was you didn’t understand the homework because there was something having a class that we could address and resolve. Now you’re able to get your homework done, because you’re understanding it better. But at home, he’s just acting out and being you know, oppositional, I’m not doing it, you know, because you’re feeling overwhelmed. And yes, there are insecurities as well and all that stuff. But if we’re so hunting for the therapy, right, there’s got to be like, emotionally, it’s got to be some, listen, there is we’re all human, we have that. But that can be Redhair, I can get his last, right, deep and you know, that kind of thing. So looking for pragmatic things, you’re looking for. understandings, right sometimes, both as parents and as young people, we have beliefs about the world that we don’t realize we have the how things operate. You know, that we think that, you know, everybody’s out to get me, let’s say, right, and maybe a kid never knew that, to even talk about that. Right? They just feel like you’re always out to get them. And if I don’t drill, I never knew that. That was how they saw the world. Was that everybody’s out to get them. Oh, well, that makes sense. Right? So if everybody’s out to get you, that makes sense that you feel like you need to resist everybody. Right? Yeah. Okay. Okay, cool. Thank you. Right. So part of conversation is just thank you, because then we go into the fixing and consequences too quick, right? Yes. Sit, stay with it, right? Because whatever we find first is probably not yet. There is no get right. But if you know, like, yes, it’s relevant. But the first thing we find we jump on it. We still missing the process. Right? Right. Digging, understanding drilling, and diving in. And going past that, right. Like, yeah. And also, here’s the other thing, right? If I, if we find something and we apply a fix, Kid tries it, it doesn’t work. Then they feel like what’s wrong with me? Right? Right. Yeah, reinforcing the very thing that maybe they’d be struggling with is what’s wrong, I’m broken, you know, I’m flawed. And we’re feeding that pattern, because we didn’t realize that, that we were sending that message with fix. Right. So you learn other skills, like part of conversation is at the end saying, It’s okay, this is probably not going to work. Right? We don’t expect it work. That’s not the intention is for it to work, right. The intention is for us to learn. Right? That’s what this conversation is, is learning, growth, etc. We’re not trying to drill in order to fix we’re drilling in order to learn.
Yeah. Wow. So there’s so much there. I, what I really heard what really stood out to me when you were talking was to when you start out, you really have to come from a place where you are okay, so probably making sure that you’re not frantic, you know, frazzled stressed out. So approaching that in a way that’s going to be giving you the kind of set you up for the best success. And then really, I think it sounded like coming at it from curiosity, and not from a place of, I need to find the answer, I need to find what’s wrong. So really trying to engage them, what would you say to a parent who’s who’s listening, and they’re trying to do this, and they have a kid that is just shut down and will not talk to them? Or their? Is that a? Is that a sign of something? Or is there something that we can do in that situation? Because I know that that’s pretty common as kids just, you know, they’ve got the proverbial hand up like, I am not going to engage.
It’s a great question. I wish now sometimes there are easy fixes, right? Sometimes there are like, Oh, my tone. Some kids, if you just apologize for the tone, a little bit of humility as a parent will decrease there. And then they’ll there are sometimes little things right. Yeah. And those are some simple things you can try. If those don’t work, right. It really is. Probably what’s happened is there’s been a relationship break. Yeah. Right. There’s some kind of wound in the relationship. Yeah. So then the process, it’s a skill of how to learn relationship repair.
Yeah, and probably the humility that you talked about goes a long way with that.
Literally right, you really have to say like, like we think about this in adult terms, we think about relationship repairing an adult term. So Gordon Neufeld, hold on to your kids is another great book that talks about how to really repair. And that, uh, when your kids back over, which is what I mean, I got a when my kids back over like they should respect me because I’m their parent, right? Well, that’s not how relationships work doesn’t matter if they’re your kid or not your kid right? Like there has to be an understanding. So you I mean, it can take up to a year to really repair a rift in a parent child relationship.
So it’s is it kind of just a matter of continuing on with the being healthy yourself? Being having some humility, really being curious? And and what you said about not necessarily taking the first thing that you find because I as a parent, I’ve noticed that is, sometimes they’ll like dole out the easiest thing first. And then and then you can sort of like continue on. So it’s sounds like it’s requires a lot of patience. And, and really being generous with your attention and your time, because that’s, it’s a long process. Yes.
Be able to because you can’t do this on every issue. If you did it on every issue kid would not want to talk to you, however,
right? You have to pick your issues.
Unknown Speaker 21:28
You get to pick your issues, right? And I like that better than pick your battles, right? You got to pick your issues, you have to pick like, Okay, that one, I’m just gonna let it go. And I’m not letting it go. That sounds negative, right? It’s like, I’m gonna believe in my child. Right. And that makes me believe in lunch, I’m gonna believe in their goodness. I believe in who they are. That I believe to let them sort through some things that are they say that are ridiculous. Yeah. Right. Cutthroat ridiculous stuff all the time. Yeah. And allow that to be okay. Right. Allow them to have that struggle, right? Allow them to lose that relationship with that friend, and have to sort through what that means. And just be there to listen, and not try and drill. Yeah, yeah, not try and get to the bottom of things and not try and you know, and that allows them to drill, ironically, right? Because then they are able to be more introspective, instead of being focused on us, but it’s still the idea of conversation, right? It’s conversation over consequence. That’s a different conversation, where I’m not drilling, I’m just learning to listen and learn and understand where they’re coming from, versus the consequence in that situation would be what’s gonna be fixing or worrying about it or, you know, trying to do something about it, etc. Back to your question a lot about what I do for kids really shut down. And I’m focused on relationship parents, like what do you if you’re only focused on relationship? And what? What about the parenting aspect? Right? That’s when you Yeah, I believe a lot in teams, right? Let’s so if you have a co parent, right, you can rely on the co-parent, maybe you’re the relationship that’s more wounded, you focus on that, it’s going to be hard for the co- parent. But hopefully, they understand that if your relationship gets healed, they can be more present for you, or teachers, or coaches or other people that can kind of do a little bit of that work to support you, right, your community to help you while you’re doing relationship repair. There’s part of the fact that humility, right, the idea that I need to rely on other people sometimes, you know, if I’m gonna try to do it all myself, yeah, I’m gonna be if things get tough, really tough. I can’t do all things.
Right. Right. We try. We try. But we can’t,
cannot do all things. And we ended up pushing our kids further away, right, and then attempt to try and help them with the relationship is more wounded. And likewise, we’re able to have less conversation,
right? I’m curious how this sort of plays out. If you have a child who is in wilderness therapy, so let’s say they’re out of the home, they’re learning how to have conversations and I imagine it’s much easier for them to talk with some of the staff that’s out in the field with them because it’s not the parent are they learning ways then when they come back home to have those conversations with the parents so maybe they’re not quite so shut down? Or what what transpires there like what could we expect if if our kid isn’t in wilderness, when they come home, how those conversations might be different
than they should be? Hopefully they are. And that’s the intention or plant now once again, up to depends. It depends on the, the the ideology of the program and the therapists you’re working with. So if you I, I believe in being an informed consumer of therapy and, and medical care, things like that not being not being a not being like a pessimist or a naysayer, but in the form consumer, right, someone that says, hey, I appreciate that your consequence in my child to try and help him grow. But I’m more interested in is he learning to have the conversation through the issue? Right, right. You know, I, once again, I appreciate the consequence, but I would much rather have him learn how to have conversation. Because that consequences thing, the consequence of learning if it is learning, I find isn’t as transferable or sustainable because a parent isn’t gonna be able to consequence in the same way a program is right. Right. Right. And so because they can’t, how do you transfer? How do you transfer it? Right? And, and you’re asking the parents, but if I can teach us how that conversation in parallel be teaching parents, how to have these conversations, and I call it coming to the table, right? So when a kid gets to the point of needing an intervention at the level of wilderness, they’re not able to come to the table. Yes. Right. So this, you know, this is where we don’t need to feel shame about the past, right? Because even if I learned all these skills, if my kid can’t come to the table, now, they’re not going to come to the table perfectly. Right? But somewhat come to the table so they can learn enough of coming to the table and wilderness. And I can learn a lot about coming to the table. Right? Remember that compensating equal? It’s fine, right? It works out great. But if we’re not, then I have to learn a little bit more, depending on how much and so I would be assessing with my wilderness therapist. Like, how much are they able to come to the table? Like, how much am I gonna have to compensate?
I really like that, yeah. Yeah, I like that almost visual, I can see of them coming to the table. Because you’re right there, there comes a time when that isn’t happening. And you have to bring in some extra help to make to kind of repair that. So that’s a nice visual, I think of seeing them be able to re approach the table for those conversations, which is really, really powerful. So it sounds like, if I’m sort of wrapping it all in a ball, we need to realize that we can get consequences, we can set boundaries, that we may be doing something that’s completely ineffective, or even more damaging, because we don’t know what the real problem is. And to find that real problem, we have to do the digging, gently, humbly do the digging. And really try to get at it from a place of curiosity and just know that it may take time. Because there may be a lot of there may be a huge gap there kind of between the two sides of the table. Which is a good way I think for parents to be able to kind of think about this, in a process standpoint, versus this emotional place of like, Ah, I can’t talk to my kid. You know, we get so emotional about it. So I love this way of kind of thinking through it really practically. Like there’s some things that we can do that might get that flow conversation going again.
Yeah, they did I operate from a what’s called a skills perspective, like the the idea that most issues resolve around some deficit and skill. Right versus insight, which is that we’re lacking the insight to do so on motivation. So there’s insight and motivation, philosophy, and then there’s skills, philosophy. For example, relationship is a skill, right? It knowing how to have relationship with a teenager is a skill, a big skill. Some people know how to do that really well, they kind of intuitively have that skill, the rest of us, right, have to learn the skill. And even once we learn the skill, we have to learn the skill is unique to the individual that’s in front of us versus the person we wish they were and how to have that relationship. And it isn’t. We shame ourselves because like, we feel like it should come intuitively like what’s wrong with me? Why can’t they? It’s a skill. There’s a lot of little nuances to having that relationship. And especially when you take the you know, think the introverted parent and the extroverted child, right. How do they do relationship? Right, right. Yeah, that’s a skill, right? How about if I’m an introvert, how do I learn to have relationship with an extrovert, right? How do I understand their worldview? I don’t understand what they need. How do I recognize that it’s not because I’m going to be imposing without realizing it, I think it’s values I’m imposing, but it really imposing on top of the values is also this idea of what I think is right, which is filtered through my experience, which is related to being an introvert. To somebody who’s not going to it’s a skill, right? It’s like, okay, no big deal, right? It’s okay. It’s all right. Good. So I say to myself and parents all the time, it’s okay. Right? Yeah. We’re just learning, right? We’re just trying to navigate a really complex process. And there’s a lot of ways to learn skill. Right? So a lot of beautiful resources have worn that not one of them is the answer, right? Don’t ever latch on the one. This book, right? This one person that recommended a couple, but I mean, I, some people, I do think I’m more foundationally. Better for us to learn. But there’s hundreds of different ideas out there about how to relate to connect and try salon. Right? See if they were?
Yeah, and I think thinking about it like that makes it less intimidating, just to say, hey, there’s there’s different ways that you can learn this, this is not an internal flaw of yours that you’re not getting, you know, you’re not doing it right. That it is something that you can learn. And before we wrap up, I just wanted to ask a quick question about, we kind of started talking about consequences and boundaries. And I don’t think you’re saying that those aren’t appropriate at some times. It’s just that that may not be the first place you want to go that you want to have this conversation first to inform that, am I right in that? Or maybe
you’re correct? Yes, it’s about it. Maybe it’s about percentage of time you’re spending. Okay. So if the hardest thing to do, and the most intricate skill to develop is relational, conversation, connectedness skills, that I should spend the largest percentage of my time working on that. Okay. If I spend the largest, I think early on, I hope people are evolving out of this. But I but I know that there’s a lot of pressure put on parents to focus on the boundaries. And so we put like, 80% of our work into boundaries in that, well, what am I going to go to when things get hard, I’m going to go to whatever I’ve been taught the most. And, and I’m focused on the most, right? So it’s just about where I, where I put my energy, and where I put my time in learning and exploring and practicing and engaging. is which one, right, I would say is like, like, 90% is relational, etc. And like, 10% Yeah, sure, the boundaries are no one’s gonna remember boundaries. That’s a very complex concept as well, because I’m referring to unfortunately, the fact that boundaries have been synonymous with rules and expectation, like punishment, internal boundaries, right? Like all that kind of stuff. You know, the family therapy concepts around boundaries. That’s a different kind of boundary world. But yes, so boundaries, consequences, rules, expectations, all that I, in my experience should just be a really small package, but still crucial, but a smaller package, when the more important and more challenging work is all the rest of it. Yeah.
Well, Greg, this has been so informative, I think we really could talk for hours about it. And, and I love that kind of that final thought about the wait, how much time am I spending, learning these skills, practicing having these conversations even when it’s uncomfortable? versus how much time am I spending writing out or, you know, constructing all these rules and consequences and punishments and, and things like that. So really, really helpful. Thank you for joining us for our speaker series is so helpful, and we really appreciate your time, and your experience and all the kiddos you’ve worked with and families who’ve helped. So thanks so much for being here. Thank you. Thank you. And if you’re watching, thank you for joining us and come back for another speaker series. We are going to be doing a few more and we’d love to have you join for even more information. So thanks for coming today and we’ll see you soon. Thanks
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